Latté Art Competitions: Deathtraps or Friendly Fun?

This past Thursday, Chris “Brosetta” O’Donnell, a barista from Ritual Coffee Roasters, sustained a series of bizarre and near-fatal injuries after competing in a local latté art competition.

“You know, we used to joke about these things being a barista bloodbath, but lately it’s actually starting to feel that way. I’ve been doing it for months but I’m not sure I feel safe anymore,” said O’Donnell, from his hospital bed.

O’Donnell endured a series of burns along his torso, contusions from a coffee grinder launched at him, and a bout with blindness after espresso machine cleaner sprayed into his eyes.

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O’Donnell pouring his signature rosetta, before tragedy struck

Latté art competitions are designed as a friendly way for baristas to showcase their skills with steamed milk and espresso in a series of one-on-one face offs on an espresso machine, but the trend has lately grown increasingly more violent. The events, termed “throwdowns” by industry folk, traditionally take place on Thursday nights, and use a single-elimination bracket system to determine winners.

But lately, risk analysts outside the industry are becoming more vocal in their warnings that this trend is not a safe one.

“I know these kids are just having fun, but they don’t realize their safety’s at stake every time they start pouring,” said David Welch, an actuary who specializes in barista behavior.

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The recent rise in the competitions’ popularity means some baristas have begun taking dangerous measures to get that extra competitive edge. While it’s not uncommon to see personal milk pitchers and custom-made cups, the gear is growing more hazardous by the week.

“I saw this dude from [redacted] who had sharpened the spout of his milk pitcher to a razor’s edge. You couldn’t tell at first, but then he bumped into me and I started bleeding,” said Silvio Mendez, a welding enthusiast and frequent competition attendee from Sightglass.

Anna Jones, an art student who tells us she works as a barista because she’s “intoxicated by the magic of the craft,” recently earned second degree burns while judging a competition.

“The cappuccino cup had this trick bottom built in, so if you held it the wrong way it would release all the steamed milk right onto your lap,” said Jones, lifting her dress to reveal horrific skin grafts.

Hospital Patient in a Full Body Cast

O’Donnell in a body cast

Apparently, some of the baristas of exceptional ability are beginning to use their skills the wrong way.

“They’re beginning to realize their own power,” said Blue Bottle founder James Freeman, “and how far they can get with it. When you can rig an espresso machine to injure someone, you realize how easy it is to climb the ladder by taking your competitors down.”

As latté art competitions grow more violent, it doesn’t help that a new organizing body—the Bay Area Coffee Community—is working to proliferate the number taking place around the bay. Lately, there has been some contention that the BACC has a special interest in weeding out the weakest baristas.

“They’re assembling an army,” said Hanson Baines, a bike mechanic who works part time at Four Barrel. “They’re going to cherry pick the strongest ones and take over the world with a crew of milk-pouring ninjas.”

The BACC declined to comment. As the number of baristas crowding emergency rooms on Thursday night continues to increase, competition organizers are considering implementing safeguards like helmets, padding, and pre-competition screenings. Some baristas, however, don’t like the sounds of that.

“What is this, 1984? Big Brother? We need to keep this underground if we’re gonna keep it real. Do they wear helmets in a fight club? Didn’t think so. And this is our fight club. This is all we have,” said Mendez.

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